With the disappointing news that John Wick 4 will be delayed until 2022 due to the filming impacts of the Coronavirus, there aren’t many places to turn to for a fix of the Wick. To help bridge the gap… or at least lay the foundation… Good Shepherd have ported John Wick Hex to the PS4 so that the tactical shooter can hit more targets. Taking a different approach than you might expect, Bithell Games have spun the expected genre on its head and brought to bear a game that might be quite divisive for fans of the movie character. Will it earn its place in the employ of the High Table, or is it destined to fall from grace?
Set before the events of the film franchise, John Wick Hex is a tale about our hero before he got out of the business that earned him his reputation. The nefarious Hex has kidnapped Winston and Charon (voiced well by McShane and Reddick) in an effort to draw John into confrontation, and he’s not going to disappoint. Narrated by the trio as they await Wick’s arrival, the story sees you take control of the world’s deadliest hitman searching for clues that lead him around New York City to rescue the pair. In expected fashion, there’s gun fu galore and a litter of bodies left in his wake, though how they end up on the ground isn’t quite why you might expect. See, this isn’t a first or third person action adventure. It’s a semi turn-based strategy game masquerading as a shooter. Don’t let that put you off though, there is a fast paced and challenging game at heart that feels great when it all comes together.
As this is a strategy game, don’t expect completely full and free movement – the play space is defined by a grid. You move John from dot-to-dot up to a maximum distance in order to scout the environments and tackle the bad guys. You can go wherever there’s a highlight, and usually reaching a destination unveils the next part of the map. John Wick Hex very nicely uses sight lines to determine what you can see and when, so spinning the camera around the level won’t reveal anything that John physically can’t see. It also means blundering around is likely to get you dead, fast. Being cautious and deliberate with your positioning is key to getting the drop on the goons, and ensuring you don’t get overwhelmed. Once they’re in your vision it’s time to plan the action and execute an attack.
Depending on where you are relative to the enemies will determine what options are for attack. At distance you can decide to shoot and fire off a double-tap of a pistol and put them down, though John Wick Hex really comes alive at close range. There are 4 different moves for going toe-to-toe: Strike, Push, Takedown and Parry and each has a different time to execute, damage rating and focus meter cost; and they range from stunning an enemy for a few seconds to wiping the floor with them… literally. Time is actually key throughout the combat because it’s how you make John get the upper hand on everyone. Bars at the top of the screen show the current event timeline for you and the enemies in range, so you can stay a step ahead. If they’re going to shoot, but it’ll take 1.2 seconds, you can find an option that will execute faster and stop them in their tracks, or simply get out of the way. It takes a bit of getting used to, though needs mastering to be good at the game.
With different enemies of varying strengths, dancing between them and keeping moving around the stage is essential. Some are unarmed and can take a beating at close range, some are holding powerful weapons and will keep their distance, and some are just plain nasty like armoured shotgun wielding enforcers. Calculated hit/miss percentages are shown on the screen depending on whether your targets are moving, and likewise, keeping John still will make him a bullet sponge. There are defensive actions that can be taken – if you can call them that – like bandaging wounds to restore health, refocusing to replenish the meter, or crouching and rolling around. These add to the options for navigating each conflict, and as with everything else there’s a time penalty for employing them, so strategic use and planning is needed to make sure you don’t end up paying for their use with your life.
Fortunately there are things that can help you out on your mission. Before the levels begin there’s the chance to place items in the environments like fully loaded weapons and bandages, or spend some points on boosting your abilities. This element of pre-planning is a nice touch, but also very light, and it feels like it could be expanded on. That said, even without the extra drops the stages are usually a delight to walk through with the bold lines and distinct use of colour and shadow. The implementation of the sightline system and the way objects work to obscure and reveal routes comes into its own during confined spaces where you can use the lack of vision to your advantage. You can’t see them, but they can’t see you, and that can make all the difference when up against multiple enemies at once. Don’t forget to snag the weapons they drop too, it’ll be a lifesaver, though the bigger the gun, the longer it takes to fire.
Successfully complete a stage and you’re rewarded with the chance to watch a replay of the events as they unfolded in real time, and arguably this is where the game most resembles the action of the films… and also doesn’t. There’s a joy in seeing what you did and how cinematic the takedowns and firefights were, yet it’s also stilted because of the single speed walking and limited move set. It lacks a bit of dynamism that would just edge it into more engaging territory, and sometimes the camera decides to focus on the wrong piece and you’re just watching the back of a suit fire off into nowhere. With at least 6 sections to the 7 levels, it can also get a bit repetitive and it’s easy to find yourself not really bothered about watching it through again, especially when you know the last 10 minutes of play is going to be condensed into less than a minute. Still, if you manage a run through without taking damage it’s nice to relive that particular bit of skill.
It’s not all rosy with the PS4 port though, and whilst it’s something that Good Shepherd are reaching out to gamers to resolve, it’s not great that the game has a tendency to crash in the replays. Many a complicated, difficult or skilful run has been lost to a freeze and crash to desktop whilst watching the results of the level, which means that element becomes redundant if you want to progress. There’s also the difficulty that seems a little unbalanced. The enemy difficulty increase is fine – they get stronger as it goes on as any game, though the way they’re thrown in sometimes can be unfair. It might not mean to do it, but on more than one occasion I’ve found myself surrounded by bad guys that have just seemingly popped into existence around John, pretty much causing an instant death. Boss battles bizarrely border on the laughable. If you’re not fighting any other goons at the same time, just spamming the takedown move until their defences are down then shooting them is the easiest option.
It’s a bit mixed then is John Wick Hex. There’s a good license use that takes the essence of what people want to him to be, and designs it well so that anyone can be Baba Yaga fairly confidently. With basically infinite time to plan and execute things shouldn’t escalate beyond control, at least in the early stages, and for the sadists there’s a difficulty mode that restricts the time to decide on action to 7 seconds. On the other hand you never really get that full satisfaction of being John Wick as it can sometimes feel a bit detached, and it was about halfway in that I realised it’s like an isometric version of SUPERHOT. Maybe that style is what we need to really step into His shoes. However, once it’s patched to fix the bugs this should be one for the fans to get brutally stuck in to.